The decision passed down this week by the regional National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Chicago ruling that Northwestern University football payers are essentially employees of the University has rocked the sports world this week. The pundit class as well as sports junkies across the country have been feverishly debating the consequences of the ruling, both intended and unintended. Much of the media coverage has focused on the ramifications that this could have on a range of issues from the traditional concept of the student–athlete, the fundamental role of the NCAA and the impact on Title 9. And this doesn't even scratch the surface.
Ironically, what may have the most long-term impact not only on one of America’s favorite pastimes but on America itself is absent from the coverage and subsequent debate. What the general public and the largely sympathetic media are failing to understand is that this isn’t really big news at all. It's merely the latest example of the growing activism of the NLRB and their strategic and systematic lowering of the threshold of what qualifies as a union. The NLRB is not supposed to be in the labor activism space. In theory, it is supposed to act as a neutral arbiter overseeing the interaction of management and labor unions and acting as judge and jury ensuring that each side is playing by the established rules. It is supposed to protect employees and employers. But things have changed dramatically, especially in the last five years.
It’s no secret that unions have seen their membership numbers plummet over the last two generations and have suffered the diminished political power that accompanies it. Their legislative agenda in Washington is increasingly dead on arrival in an overwhelmingly Republican House and a divided Senate. Conventional wisdom is that the future looks bleaker by the day. In response to this environment, Big Labor has turned to the union-friendly executive branch and the Obama Administration to temporarily salve their wounds. Whether successfully pressuring the White House into issuing Executive orders raising the minimum wage or shamelessly stacking the deck at the NLRB, unions are desperate to deploy any strategy that helps them hang on for just a little bit longer.
The Obama Administration has intentionally and deliberately re-cast the traditional role of the NLRB from neutral referee to highly compensated offensive coordinator of the union organizing agenda. Of late, their playbook has included cutting in half the timeframe for a unionization election to a mere 45 days, restricting the access employers can have to their own employees during that period, the proposed papering of all common areas in a place of employment with posters outlining an employees right to unionize, and the granddaddy of them all, the legitimatization of non-profit “worker centers’’ which act as new mini-unions specifically designed to operate totally outside of traditional labor laws that the NLRB is supposed to be enforcing.
Those analogies are really the only meaningful relationship between this ruling and football. It isn't college football players that matter here. Its the definition of what is or is not an employee that is at the root of this ruling and has monumental ramifications. Unfortunately for the Northwestern football players, the play called for them to be co-opted as tackling dummies for the first stringers over at the NLRB.